Venezue­lans stay away from polls to protest gov­ern­ment vote

El Dorado News-Times - - International -

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezue­lans stayed away from the polls in mas­sive num­bers on Sun­day in a show of protest against a vote to grant Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro's rul­ing so­cial­ist party vir­tu­ally un­lim­ited pow­ers in the face of a bru­tal so­cio-eco­nomic cri­sis and a grind­ing bat­tle against its po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents and groups of in­creas­ingly alien­ated and vi­o­lent young protesters.

The gov­ern­ment swore to con­tinue its push for to­tal po­lit­i­cal dom­i­nance of this once-pros­per­ous OPEC na­tion, a move likely to trig­ger U.S. sanc­tions and new rounds of the street fight­ing that has killed at least 122 and wounded nearly 2,000 since protests be­gan in April.

Venezuela's chief pros­e­cu­tor's of­fice re­ported seven deaths Sun­day in clashes be­tween protesters and po­lice across the coun­try. Seven po­lice of­fi­cers were wounded when an ex­plo­sion went off as they drove past piles of trash that had been used to block­ade a street in an op­po­si­tion strong­hold in eastern Caracas.

Ar­gentina, Colom­bia, Peru, Panama, Peru and the United States said they would not rec­og­nize Sun­day's vote. Canada and Mex­ico have also is­sued state­ments re­pu­di­at­ing the elec­tion.

Across the cap­i­tal of more than 2 mil­lion peo­ple, dozens of polling places were vir­tu­ally empty, in­clud­ing many that saw hours-long lines of thou­sands vot­ing to keep the gov­ern­ment in power over the last two decades. By con­trast, at the Poliedro sports and cul­tural com­plex in west­ern Caracas, sev­eral thou­sand peo­ple waited about two hours to vote, many drawn from op­po­si­tion-dom­i­nated neigh­bor­hoods where polling places were closed. But at least three dozen other sites vis­ited by The As­so­ci­ated Press had no more than a few hun­dred vot­ers at any one time, with many vir­tu­ally empty.

Op­po­si­tion lead­ers had called for a boy­cott of the vote, declar­ing it rigged for the rul­ing party, and by late af­ter­noon they were declar­ing the low turnout a re­sound­ing vic­tory.

"It's very clear to us that the gov­ern­ment has suf­fered a de­feat to­day," said Julio Borges, pres­i­dent of the op­po­si­tion-con­trolled but largely pow­er­less Na­tional Assem­bly. "This vote brings us closer to the gov­ern­ment leav­ing power."

Maduro called the vote for a con­sti­tu­tional assem­bly in May af­ter a month of protests against his gov­ern­ment, which has over­seen Venezuela's des­cent into a dev­as­tat­ing cri­sis dur­ing its four years in power. Thanks to plung­ing oil prices and wide­spread cor­rup­tion and mis­man­age­ment, Venezuela's in­fla­tion and homi­cide rates are among the world's high­est, and wide­spread short­ages of food and medicine have cit­i­zens dy­ing of pre­ventable ill­nesses and root­ing through trash to feed them­selves.

The win­ners among the 5,500 rul­ing-party can­di­dates run­ning for 545 seats in the con­stituent assem­bly will be charged with rewrit­ing the coun­try's con­sti­tu­tion and will have pow­ers above and be­yond other state in­sti­tu­tions, in­clud­ing the op­po­si­tion-con­trolled congress.

Maduro made clear in a tele­vised ad­dress Sat­ur­day that he in­tends to use the assem­bly not just to re­write the coun­try's char­ter but to gov­ern with­out lim­i­ta­tion. De­scrib­ing the vote as "the elec­tion of a power that's above and be­yond every other," Maduro said he wants the assem­bly to strip op­po­si­tion law­mak­ers and gover­nors of con­sti­tu­tional im­mu­nity from pros­e­cu­tion — one of the few re­main­ing checks on

rul­ing party power.

Declar­ing the op­po­si­tion "al­ready has its prison cell wait­ing," Maduro added: "All the crim­i­nals will go to prison for the crimes they've com­mit­ted."

He said the new assem­bly would be­gin to gov­ern within a week, with its first task in rewrit­ing the con­sti­tu­tion to be "a to­tal trans­for­ma­tion" of the of­fice of Venezuela's chief pros­e­cu­tor, a for­mer gov­ern­ment loy­al­ist who has be­come the high­est-rank­ing of­fi­cial to pub­licly split from the pres­i­dent.

"Peo­ple aren't in agree­ment with this," said Daniel Ponza, a 33-yearold dry­wall con­trac­tor, as he watched a few dozen peo­ple out­side a polling place in El Valle, a tra­di­tional strong­hold of the rul­ing Chav­ista move­ment in west­ern Caracas. "Peo­ple are dy­ing of hunger, look­ing

for food in the trash. And I think this is just go­ing to make things worse."

Still, for many oth­ers, the loom­ing like­li­hood of au­thor­i­tar­ian gov­ern­ment was ap­peal­ing af­ter months of street block­ades and street clashes.

Sculp­tor Ri­cardo Aven­dano trav­eled from the op­po­si­tion-dom­i­nated eastern neigh­bor­hood of Las Mer­cedes to vote at the Poliedro sports and cul­tural com­plex, say­ing the gov­ern­ment needed to­tal power to con­trol food prices and shut down protests.

"The most im­por­tant thing is im­pos­ing or­der," he said. "If I'd been pres­i­dent there wouldn't be protesters in the streets. They'd be pris­on­ers."

The gov­ern­ment was en­cour­ag­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion in Sun­day's vote with tac­tics that in­cluded of­fer­ing so­cial ben­e­fits like sub­si­dized food to the poor and threat­en­ing state work­ers' jobs if they didn't vote.

"I'm here be­cause I'm hop­ing for hous­ing,"

Luisa Mar­quez, a 46-year-old hair­dresser, as she waited to vote in eastern Caracas.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has im­posed suc­ces­sive rounds of sanc­tions on high-rank­ing mem­bers of Maduro's ad­min­is­tra­tion, with the sup­port of coun­tries in­clud­ing Mex­ico, Colom­bia and Panama. Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence promised on Fri­day that the U.S. would take "strong and swift eco­nomic ac­tions" if the vote went ahead. He didn't say whether the U.S. would sanc­tion Venezue­lan oil im­ports, a mea­sure with the po­ten­tial to un­der­mine Maduro but cause an even deeper hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis here

Ahead of Sun­day's vote, the op­po­si­tion or­ga­nized a se­ries of work stop­pages as well as a July 16 protest vote that it said drew more than 7.5 mil­lion sym­bolic votes against the con­sti­tu­tional assem­bly.

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